Is Self an Illusion?
What is essential to your being? Is there a version of self that exists when everything else is stripped away? In today’s episode, we talk about self, identity, and the enduring aspects of our being.
“To understand the immeasurable, the mind must be extraordinarily quiet, still.”
The concept of self has been integral to our spiritual development since ancient times. Some say it is an illusion, others regard it as ego. In Western culture, the individual is at the center of all things. Where does the value in seeing ourselves as individuals end and when does it serve us to see ourselves as part of the larger whole? Are we more than our worldviews, our roles, our thoughts, and beliefs? The answers to these questions are at the core of most spiritual contemplations and are fundamental to solving our modern challenges.
Self as Illusion
Some traditions believe that the self is an illusion. That there is really is no you or me. Instead, we are a dynamic process in constant flux that moves within an impermanent reality. From this perspective, it is only when we identify as a static entity that suffering, self-importance, envy, greed, and even addictions occur.
Neuroscientists believe that the self can be quantified to some degree, by the correlations between what they consider the contents of our consciousness and our brain activity. For example, if someone feels fear, then there will be a corresponding activation in the amygdala. Because of this, they feel the self is really more a product of neurons firing in the brain, rather than an enduring Self. While this activation is predictable and quantifiable, the experience of fear will still be subjective. So at least in part, the self belongs to the first-person viewpoint. Furthermore, they can’t pinpoint the self in the brain. It doesn’t reside in a single area but across many, as a dynamic process.
Self As Identity
Self and identity should be seen as two separate but interrelated concepts. Our idea of self answers the questions of Who am I? and What am I? And identity is our perception of other people’s ideas of who we are. However, in a society that puts the individual at the center of everything these two concepts have become interchangeable. So much value has been placed on outcomes, what we can produce, and the attention that we can acquire, that the question of ‘who am I?’ is often answered by the roles we play and the thoughts and emotions we have as they relate to our perceived perception from others. Similar to the concept of the egoic mind.
“So then, the relationship of self to other is the complete realization that loving yourself is impossible without loving everything defined as other than yourself.”
Self as Essence
Through techniques like meditation, mindfulness, or psychedelics, we can see beyond the first-person experience. We can witness the thoughts and emotions that we normally identify as self. Instead of saying ‘I am angry’, we move to the perspective that ‘this is the experience of anger’. We are able to step back and observe the contents of our consciousness rather than own and identify with them.
In some instances, we can even move into what I would call the unity consciousness. Or a connection to all that is. Some people might describe this as the oneness they feel in altered states of consciousness. Having these experiences are integral to our spiritual development because they are a reminder that we are more than just our identity or our thoughts. You can call this the spirit, soul, or essence, but there is an enduring part of us that connects the enduring part in everything.
I often describe spirituality as the search for meaning and that meaning is connected to something bigger than the individual. This larger whole could be the universe or nature, but we understand that we are part of something that is integrative and interconnected. We understand that on many planes of our existence that we a whole human AND we are all one.
“Let the drop of water that is you become a hundred mighty seas.
But do not think that the drop alone
becomes the Ocean— the Ocean, too, becomes the drop!
Self as Collaborator
All things are collaborative. Between people, between us and the natural world. Even the body which we view as an independent and rational being, is really an ecosystem made up of billions of organisms. But we don’t perceive it that way. We dominate our natural world, we struggle for power in our relationships, we opt for conflict over cooperation. Maybe exploring the self is our entry to the whole. Not the self that produces or meets expectations, but the self that communicates with the meaningful.
There is value in viewing the self as a dynamic process, illusion, essence, or as an identity. Because each is an opportunity to see the world through different perspectives. It only becomes problematic when the first person self is always seen at the center of everything. The closer we get to our essence, the more we can live intimately with our world. We realize that all those beliefs, roles, preferences are just window dressing for our true nature – the place where my essence meets yours.
What if we shift our framing and saw the self as the ultimate collaborator – which includes all other versions of self. This makes room for the whole human that has a unique perspective but it doesn’t make us separate rather complimentary. Our world requires us to have a deeper self-awareness at this time. Without it we move blindly through our lives and make choices that serve the individual without regard for the greater good. So spend time in community, meditation, nature, and move intimately knowing we are all connected.
If you are interested in more perspectives on the self, listen to this episode of the Chaos & Light Podcast called The Inner Self and the No Self.
Your Elusive Creative Genius by Elizabeth Gilbert
Atkins, Paul & Styles, Robert. (2015). Mindfulness, identity and work: Mindfulness training creates a more flexible sense of self. 10.1017/CBO9781107587793.008.
Sam Harris: The Self is an Illusion | Big Think